Oceanus Magazine: Assessing the Health Risks of Fukushima’s Radiation


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Understanding the full range of the effects of low-level radiation exposure is increasingly important in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, according to a recent article in Oceanus Magazine from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Humans are constantly exposed to low-level radiation in our daily lives — everything from background radiation from cosmic rays and radon in rocks to artificial sources such as medical X-rays and CT scans. However, harmful health effects often result from different types and more severe doses of radiation exposure. Dr. James Seward, medical director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, emphasizes the differing ways that the human body reacts to various radioactive isotopes. For example, iodine concentrates itself in the thyroid and increases the risk of thyroid cancer. However, as long as the dose is limited, the body can generally repair itself.

In the case of the radiation exposure caused during and after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, seawater samples taken in June of 2011 by marine chemist Dr. Ken Buesseler and his team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicate that radioisotope levels are within the range for acceptable levels in drinking water in the United States. According to Seward, the harmful effects of direct exposure to the type of radiation present at Fukushima include skin burns, eye cataracts and developmental harm. These possible effects are of concern for plant workers and those in the immediate Fukushima region.

However, Seward maintains that “this type of effect has not turned out to be a significant issue around Fukushima, and it does not appear that even the more highly exposed nuclear plant workers experienced these health problems.”

That said, much remains to be learned in order to better model the effects of low-dose levels of radiation and to formulate new safety standards.

Read the full story in Oceanus Magazine.